In 2018, Ian Foster, who is a Voluntary Guide at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra gave a presentation to his fellow guides on Christmas Island in WW2 and afterwards turned that presentation into an article titled “A teacup in a storm”. That article was published on this website in 2019. Recently Ian has become a member of the Military History Association (ACT) and was invited to give a presentation on Christmas Island in WW2. With more research, this has meant that his original article has now been greatly expanded so the story below has been updated to reflect this. Many thanks go to Ian for sharing his research on Christmas Island Archives.
Christmas Island in World War 2 – A Teacup in a Storm?
by Ian Foster, Christmas Islander 1985-87
Christmas Island is a very solitary and isolated community far out in the Indian Ocean in a region which rarely figures in chronicles of Australian Military History. A few years ago, when our national response to refugees was the focus of active community interest, barely a week went by without Christmas Island being mentioned in the media. However, apart from its role as the final resting place of the unknown sailor from the HMAS Sydney, the wartime story of the Australian Territory of Christmas Island was little-known and not displayed at all at the Australian War Memorial. Was it just, as I have suggested, just a Teacup in a Storm? This article looks at Christmas Island during WW2 – what took place on, over and around CI during the Second World War, and why these stories aren’t better known?
A Calm Refuge – NOT
This is quite explainable as it was not part of Australia during WW2 (it was administered by Singapore, a part of the UK colony of Straits Settlements until 1958, when it was transferred to direct rule from London in January 1958 and then to Australia in October the same year. Most non-Asian residents were from Britain (though British historians have also virtually ignored it) and its defence was organised by Singaporean authorities. Little has been published, therefore, as to how this colonial backwater fared as Japanese forces swept all before them in 1942 and yet its story tells us much about life and attitudes in isolated oceanic communities in the darkest period in the ‘Pacific War’.
Where is Christmas Island
Christmas Island was, and remains, a very isolated community. Only about 10 kms by 12 kms in size, there were few roads on the island before WW2 and there was no airfield until 1974. Although it is 2300 kms from Perth and 1300 kms from Singapore it is less than 400 kms south of Java. Its sole harbour, Flying Fish Cove, is vulnerable to storms and in 1939 was largely undeveloped.
Who were the Christmas Islanders?
Although the governance of the Christmas Island outpost, while isolated in the extreme, was fairly conventionally colonial in nature and the various and very diverse communal groups got along quite acceptably, with few outbreaks of violence or mutinous behaviours. The population on Christmas had grown slowly but steadily and peaceful, even docile, despite large differences between payment, living standards, customs and managerial power that had developed in the 50 years since settlement began. In the 1930s events over distant horizons began to impact on CI’s residents to an extent most had never before experienced.
Although there is no record of any indigenous population, in 1941 the population of about 1400 comprised;
- abt 30 Europeans (mainly UK)
- abt 80 Indians (Sikh police + military)
- abt 1200 Chinese & Malay (90% ‘bonded’ male labourers) + a few other Asian families
The Island was managed by the CI Phosphate Company and a District Officer reported to Singapore. Japan took 80% of the rock phosphate.
- 1931 Japan invaded and annexed Manchuria (as Manchukuo)
- 1937 Japan attacked and brutally occupied Beijing, Shanghai and Nanking. A British colonial ban on membership of Kuomintang was lifted but only non-military aid permitted.
- 1937 China Relief Fund established to raise funds from Chinese diaspora – many on CI donated to the Fund.
- 1938 Canton (Guangdong) captured (home region to many islanders) and many Chinese islanders became openly anti-Japanese.
- 1939 UK at war and Malay Patriotic Fund sought donations for Britain.
- 1939-41 STR$5 per head to the MPF was outstanding among the regional communities.
- Dec 1940 CI learns of 5 BPC sinkings around Nauru, facilitated by Japanese neutrality.
Japan’s violent attacks and incursions into the homelands of the Chinese in the 1930s aroused a greater awareness of off-island events than had previously been the case for most of the residents. The outbreak of war in Europe in 1939 only served to heighten these concerns, angers and fears and those with access to outside media, relatives and friends were able to monitor an outside world that seemed to be far more threatening than had been the case in 1914.
1940 – A Wake-up Call
The German raider, Atlantis, during its successful Indian Ocean cruise in 1940 (It sank or captured 22 ships in 1940-1), had observed the lights of the Island settlement blazing away in peacetime mode.
When news of this observation filtered back to authorities, a blackout was hurriedly imposed and in 1941 a six-inch ex-naval gun, along with a small contingent from the Hong Kong & Singapore Royal Artillery, was sent from Singapore. Fortifications were constructed and the 6 British and thirty Indian soldiers were augmented by the enlistment of all (European) males into a local contingent of the Malayan/Singapore Volunteers. Apart from this, little change occurred to the regular trade of rock phosphate, with Japan the major customer.
8 Dec Japan Joins the War. What now?
News reached the islanders of the loss of the HMAS Sydney on 19 November 1941 about 2000 kms to the South but few probably guessed how it would later involve them.
The sudden state of war with Japan on 7/8 December 1941 caused a prompt cessation of all mining and shipping. On 12 December Australia’s Sparrow Force was landed on West Timor and then a few days later occupied parts of Portuguese East Timor. The rapid advance of Japanese forces down through Malaya led the island administration to call a meeting of all European staff on 25 December. It is not known if news of the capitulation of Hong Kong the same day would have been known to those at the meeting or if it might have affected their decisions.
Astonishingly, from our perspective today, they recommended the evacuation of all (non-Asian) women and children to Singapore for their safety.
On 2 January 1942, the day that Rabaul was attacked, and Manila surrendered, the supply ship, Islander departed for Singapore with its precious human cargo, leaving the menfolk to an uncertain wait of another month until their own planned relief.
A few days later a Malay fisherman reported that a Japanese submarine was surfaced on the other side of the island and that the crew had come ashore to bathe.
Perilous times as Japan expands southward
- 11 Jan – Japan declares war against NEI, captures NEI oilfields, etc. US forces in Philippines retreat to Java, pursued by Japanese expanding into NEI
- 6 Feb – HMAS Sydney raft arrives & crewman buried
- 17 Feb – AIF ‘enters’ East Timor
- 19 Feb – Japan enters West & East Timor and – Darwin Bombed
- 8 Mar – Japanese land unopposed at Lae, New Guinea
6 February HMAS Sydney Float and the Island gravesite
On 6 February a large floating object surrounded by birds was observed about 3 miles offshore and after first being suspected of being a further submarine it was approached and identified as a Carley Float life-raft, and it contained the remains of a body. Staff members brought it ashore for closer examination and from the markings and insignia determined that the body was an Australian. He was still clothed in the remains of his boilersuit, and in which he was buried, with full military honours. The island’s radio officer, Joseph Baker, said in an interview in the 1980s.
Sad though it was, we gained some satisfaction that this lonely sailor had been brought by the sea to a place occupied by his allies and friends. We carried him up the hillside to a lovely park site overlooking the cove and surrounded by a mass of bougainvillea. He was buried in what was then the cemetery near the Coffee Gardens, (behind the Staff club and above the Cove), The District Officer conducted a short service whilst we few Volunteers provided a military escort. A Sikh policeman sounded the Last Post and the notes floated down the hillside to the shore in the quiet evening. It was a very sombre escort that returned down the hill and the war seemed to be getting a little closer.
Identifying the ‘Unknown’ Sailor
When staff members were evacuated to Perth a few weeks later, details of the examination of the body, its clothing and the Carley Float were reported to naval authorities. The island personnel were in no doubt as to the unknown sailor’s Australian origin, though this was rejected in 1949 by Captain Oldham RN, the officer responsible for investigating issues around the loss of the HMAS Sydney in 1941. Many contested this conclusion in the following decades, but all doubts were rejected by British and Australian naval authorities and many in the Naval community. Additional approaches led to a parliamentary inquiry and the earlier conclusions were overturned in 1998. Further investigation (including DNA samples) revealed his identity as 21-year-old Able Seaman Thomas Welsby Clark – a name that has always been listed with his fellow crewmen on the HMAS Sydney on the AWM’s Roll of Honour.
All commercial radio services from Singapore had been suspended and soon after, on 7 January, the Norwegian freighter Eidsvold arrived from Colombo to load phosphate, unaware of the dangers of submarines in the area. It approached the island, despite desperate signalling from the shore as to its peril and began loading.
After a short time, operations were curtailed by the wet season swells and the ship stood off the island waiting for calmer weather. At 2.30pm on 20 January a torpedo from an unseen submarine was observed passing 25 metres astern of the ship. Emergency procedures were implemented, and the ship drew in closer to the supposed protection of the Island’s sole cannon.
A second attack at 6.30 pm struck the Eidsvold amidships, almost splitting the hull in two. A shot from the Island’s fort drove the submarine away and the crew took to the boats as the abandoned ship drifted out of the Cove and ran aground along the coast, where it later broke up and eventually sank. Feeding the marooned sailors was a problem and when no further submarine activity was apparent, a group of islanders had boarded the deteriorating hulk and ‘rescued’ additional frozen meat to augment the meagre supplies on the island, unmolested by any submarine. Island personnel were astonished when the Eidsvold’s crew were initially reluctant to share any of the frozen meat that locals who, at some risk, had rescued from their ship.
About 17 days later, an allied cruiser HMS Durban, arrived with instructions to embark the Eidsvold’s crew. When informed of the proximity of a submarine it completed the task quickly and departed for duties in the Java Sea, leaving the mining staff and Asian workforce to their fates. The Eidsvold’s entire crew was landed in Batavia where they were allocated to The Burns Philp freighter Marella. Marella had been bound for Sydney but had been abandoned by its crew in Batavia Harbour. They were replaced by the Eidsvold’s crew and on 21 March they docked in Sydney. HMS Durban was scuttled off Normandy’s beaches as a breakwater for D-Day.
What about the Islander, in Singapore?
The war was clearly coming closer and the fate of the loved ones of the mine staff who had left 6 weeks before for Singapore was unknown. How had the CI evacuees responded to the deteriorating situation in Singapore during early February? Realising their increasing peril, a few chose a further hazardous evacuation to India, but others decided to reboard the Islander to return to Christmas Island to collect and evacuate, with their menfolk, to Australia. As a normal commercial vessel, the Islander, though unarmed, would be a legitimate military target and so this would also be a very hazardous undertaking indeed, not least because they were very low on fuel. In addition, the captain had suffered a nervous breakdown and was absent in hospital (and was later interned for the duration in Changi). To compound their problems in those chaotic final days in Singapore, the acting captain had not been able ascertain the coded recognition flags in use at that time. Nevertheless, they hurriedly set sail for Christmas Island, probably aware of the possibility of an attack from either side. Airborne Japanese attacks on Palembang on Sumatra on 13 February prevented them refuelling at their normal depot but they managed to get some fuel in Batavia Harbour before setting out again.
Feb 1942 – back to CI
Two mornings later, on 15 February the cessation of radio signals from Singapore was consistent with its likely surrender and early that morning the small ship approached Christmas Island and its British garrison. Now a fresh dilemma presented itself, as the ship was bound by the strict policy of total radio silence and also lacked the recognition flag codes. The island’s defending force signalled the approaching ship to stop 3 miles offshore, and it complied, possibly happy to keep some distance between itself and an island that may have already fallen to the Japanese, who may already be in control of the Island. – and its 6-inch gun.
With the fall of Singapore, the island’s defenders were also justifiably uncertain as to who was in command of the ship, a doubt reaffirmed by its apparent refusal to fly the correct recognition flags. With the 6-inch naval gun targeting at the Islander, Joseph Baker, the Radio Officer, volunteered to take a launch out to determine its allegiance. As he nervously approached, he suddenly saw his wife Bobby waving happily from the deck and signalled to the fort that all was well and to allow the ship to approach. On landing, Bobby and the others briefed the garrison and staff on conditions in Singapore and the impossibility of expecting any support from the north. Each staff member had to make a decision to remain or leave for Australia
At 3pm that afternoon a submarine periscope appeared – approaching the cove and the Islander. The gun crew went into action and the submarine was shelled and then disappeared, from all appearances out of control. Island staff members were certain it had been sunk and its remains were reportedly found on the harbour floor after the war, though there is some doubt on this.
Another Norwegian cargo ship, the MV Hermione, then arrived after landing British troops in Java. After two days, it departed for Perth, carrying the hurriedly packed Radio Operator Baker and his wife, Bobby, who were anxious to leave at the first opportunity, even though it meant leaving many personal records, mementos and photos behind.
The next day, 18 February, the Islander also left for Perth, carrying a further 49 civilian evacuees. Sadly, none of the evacuees had the time or luggage space to pack the many precious treasures, papers and photos they had gathered over their years on Christmas Island.
On arrival at Fremantle on 25 February its acting captain reported that he had left behind 15 Europeans, 27 Indian soldiers and 28 Indian police, all of whom were in need of urgent evacuation. He did not mention the 1565 Asian residents, many of whom had already refused to leave their island home anyway and because he probably did not regard them to be in any danger.
The seas off Western Australia were by now very busy and Islander’s captain reported sighting two convoys sailing northwards off the WA coast. The second convoy, sighted on 23 February included the USS Langley (the US navy’s first carrier), escorted by the HMAS Perth and USS Phoenix, the only one of the three to be afloat 2 weeks later.
(The USS Phoenix lived up to its name. After a very eventful war it was decommissioned and then sold to the Argentinean Navy. Under its new name, the General Belgrano, it was sunk in 1982 by a British submarine during the Falklands War.)
Feb 1942 Hammer blows
On 19 February the Japanese mounted their first bombing raid on Christmas Island, killing three mine labourers. On the same day Darwin was heavily bombed and the Japanese landed on Bali. On 23 February they occupied the Andaman Islands and had eliminated all allied naval forces to the immediate north at the Battles of the Java Sea and the Sunda Strait 28 Feb-3 March. Rangoon fell to the Japanese on 8 March and the same day their forces landed in New Guinea. All organised resistance on Java ceased on 12 March. Those left on Christmas Island, isolated and vulnerable, resigned themselves to a gloomy future.
The desperate Dutch need for USAAF P40s
The USS Langley was originally constructed as a transport pre-WW1 but in 1922 was converted to become the US Navy’s first aircraft carrier.
Lt Gen Brereton USAAF had negotiated a number of cooperative deals with the Australian military in 1941-2 and one involved assembling and air-ferrying P40s to the hard-pressed US forces in the Philippines. The ‘Brereton Route’ opened on 16 January 1942 but the inexperienced American pilots flying high performance single seat fighters over 100s of miles of featureless scrub, even when escorted, were unable to maintain the necessary numbers of P40s in active combat zones, even when these were now in nearby Java.
By February, the Langley had accompanied its flying boat detachment south as far as Darwin and awaited its next assignment.
The air ferry route to Java from Darwin and Timor was breaking down and the NEI authorities were still in desperate need of P40 fighters. It was decided by ABDA Command that 32 newly assembled P40s would be flown to Perth from Melbourne and Langley was ordered down to Perth to load these aircraft and pilots, for carriage by sea to the embattled Dutch forces in the East Indies. By February, many senior officers regarded the whole enterprise to be a futile waste of men, planes and ships but the confused ABDA command structure and the need to show support for the Dutch meant it went ahead, with Tjilatjap on the south coast of Java as the chosen destination – today Cilacap.
USS’s Langley, Pecos, Edsall and Whipple – shared fates
The two transports Langley with its 32 ready to fly P40s and USS Seawitch with another further 27 P40s, albeit still in their crates, were en route northwards in a convoy bound for Colombo (which Islander had sighted earlier). As the NEI crisis deepened they were ordered to leave the convoy and sail directly and separately to Tjilatjap. To provide necessary air cover they rendezvoused near Java with two destroyers, the ageing USS Whipple and USS Edsall.
Loss of USS Langley
Langley never made it to Tjilatjap as the venerable old ship mistimed its arrival on 26 February and was caught by Japanese bombers in daylight in confined coastal waters. It was seriously hit in an air attack and finally abandoned, then scuttled, with the total loss of its 32 fighters. Seawitch was able to land its 27 crated P40s on 28 February but all were later destroyed by the retreating allied forces.
The two destroyers rescued 485 Langley survivors in just 26 minutes and then the Whipple shelled and sank the disabled old Langley, to prevent its use by the Japanese. The two destroyers were ordered to rendezvous at Christmas Island on 28 February to transfer those rescued to the veteran fleet oiler USS Pecos, which had been supporting American ships in action around Java and had been bound for Colombo. When he learned of his mission, Commander Abernethy of the Pecos acquired a large supply of bamboo trunks and spread them across the metal decks of the tanker. These were to come in handy when, as he expected, the Pecos came under attack. The vessels duly met off Flying Fish Cove in the morning.
Attempted transfer of rescued sailors at CI
The 28 February was about to become a very busy day because at 1020, just as the complex ship to ship transfer of personnel off Christmas Island was getting underway, the three ships were surprised by an attack by nine land-based bombers that had been tasked to attack the Island’s radio station and dock facilities. The bombers destroyed the radio station and an oil storage tank but gave little attention to the three US ships attacks, apart from sweeping strafing attacks as they were leaving. Needless to say, the attack served as a reminder of the small fleet’s vulnerability and the three ships hurriedly withdrew further south into a rain squall, seeking to complete the transfer out of range. In their haste to carry out the transfer they left behind a US officer from the Langley, Lt-Cmdr Thomas Donovan, on a CI launch, and gained the CI Assistant Harbourmaster, Captain Craig, who had been assisting on Pecos.
Transfer completed but futility, embarrassment and tragedy lie ahead.
With so many allied ships and aircraft seeking to escape from Java, the Japanese had collected a large naval force in these waters that included battleships, cruisers, and carriers. Early on 1 March the US ships had completed the transfer of Langley crewmen in the open ocean and the Edsall had been ordered to retain the 32 USAAF personnel rescued from Langley.
It was then ordered to turn northwards to resume its mission to deliver the airmen to Java – a truly astonishing order when allied resistance on Java was already crumbling. The airmen were to be landed in Tjilatjap to assemble and fly any available P40 fighters, or otherwise fight as infantry, an increasingly futile, doomed mission. This tragic episode was far from finished.
After the transfer, the destroyer Whipple initially steamed off westwards to assist another tanker under attack near the Cocos (Keeling) Islands, while the Pecos set off southwards, unescorted and with over 630 crewmen and survivors on board.
Loss of Edsall
Meanwhile Edsall had heard the Pecos’s distress calls and steamed back to assist, probably seeking to rescue as many of its old stricken comrades as possible. When still about 64 kms away, it was pounced upon by a large Japanese fleet that included the battleships Hiei and Kirishima and heavy cruisers Tone and Chikuma. Despite the overwhelming odds, Edsall also defended itself with skill and gallantry for over 2 hours, much to the frustration of the Japanese commander, who then called in air support and 28 carrier-born dive bombers finally sank Edsall at 1731.
The Japanese had filmed the encounter, and this was later used in an instruction film on how NOT to attack American destroyers. As well as its own crew of about 100, Edsall was carrying the 32 airmen from Langley, but only a handful of survivors were rescued by the Japanese, and none are known to have survived captivity.
1 March Loss of USS Pecos & Escape of Whipple
Two hours later the Pecos was sighted by Japanese aircraft and attacked by carrier-borne dive bombers from 11.45 onwards. Its eventual demise was certain, but it mounted an effective defence until after several hours continuous action Pecos was sunk at about 1548 hours, leaving its timber deck cargo to assist the 100s of sailors now in the sea, many for the second time.
Meanwhile the Whipple had returned to the last position of the Pecos and at 1922 hours and in the darkness began picking up survivors. It detected and attacked a submarine but remained in these perilous waters until 231 men had been rescued but in imminent danger itself it reluctantly withdrew and sailed south to Australia, aware it had left about 400 in the water, many for the second time. Among those rescued was Harbourmaster Craig from Christmas Island.
The plight of the Netherlands East Indies in 1942 was certainly desperate and most allied commanders would have known that these Dutch communities were probably impossible to save. Considering the flow of events taking place on Java at this time, and with the virtue of hindsight, it is difficult to justify the decisions that put the Langley, the Edsall and the Pecos and so many precious allied personnel and resources in such perilous danger with so little prospect of success. The commencement of bombing raids on northern Australia two weeks earlier meant that those aircraft and airmen lost in NEI may have been of more use elsewhere.
The central roles played by Dutch commanders in battles involving so many units from their ABDA allies had forced the Americans into commitments that were not always in their long-term, or even short term, interests. The ABDA experience did little to slow the Japanese incursions southwards and given the years of policy neglect in these regions, could anything much more have be expected?
10 Mar 1942, Mutinous Unrest and eventually murder
After the departure of the Islander on 18 February the remaining mining staff had supervised the destruction of much of the mining plant and equipment. A radio message beamed to the Island by Japanese authorities warned of repercussions if sabotage was discovered and with occupation imminent, the Europeans, and certainly the Asians, became increasingly nervous of reprisals.
The uniformed force on-island comprised the Punjabi ‘Indian’ troops of the HKSRA (above left) and the local Sikh police officers (the jagas,’ watchmen’) (above right). Many of the Asian labour force had moved up into the thick jungle and the Malays had built underground shelters behind the kampong, so useful work had ceased and senior staff who had remained just kept essential services running.
Events now took a sinister turn. A second bombardment of the island from surface ships and aircraft took place on 7 March, killing further labourers and destroying the radio station.
During the raid the District Officer, supported by Lt Cdr Donovan (USN) had the white flag of surrender raised and ordered that the gun at the fort be dismantled. The CO of the HKSRA detachment, Captain Williams was aware of the orders to continue resistance issued by General Wavell, the British Commander for South East Asia (by then based in India) and took issue with the DO’s instructions. When the enemy had broken off the attack and left the area, he asserted his military authority and had the Union Jack returned to the masthead and the gun reassembled.
10 March – Mutiny and Murder
With the dispute within the European community evident to the Asian staff, the effect of the steady stream of anti-British propaganda distributed by the Japanese within the ‘Indian’ communities perhaps came into play. The loyalty of some of the Punjabi ‘Indian’ troops and Sikh police officers wavered and on the night of 10 March, a group led by the two Punjabi havildars (sergeants), mutinied, broke open the weapon store, and killed Captain Williams and the four British NCOs.
The bodies were wrapped in sheets and disposed of down a cleft in the cliff used for disposing of rubbish into the ocean.
In the morning the ringleaders and their supporters rounded up and detained all remaining Europeans, who were informed of the five murders overnight and, surrounded by the armed troops, came to feel they were about to meet the same fate.
However, it soon emerged that not all the Indian soldiers or police were in sympathy with the mutiny and after several tense hours of criticisms of their actions by the Subedar (Lieutenant, East Bengali) and heated arguments among the Indians it was declared that there would be no further executions, but the Europeans and all the non-mutineers among the Indian soldiers, including their despondent Subedar CO, would be held in the District Officer’s bungalow until the Japanese arrived.
31 March Invasion
Upon completion of the occupation of Java, Japanese Imperial General Headquarters, issued orders on 14 March directing Commander-in-Chief, Combined Fleet, to occupy the island – Operation X. In turn, the 2nd Southern Expeditionary Fleet organized an occupation force under command of Rear-Admiral Shoji Nishimura, Commander of the 4th Destroyer Squadron, consisting of
- light cruisers Natori and Naka,
- the 9th Destroyer Division (destroyers Asagumo, Natsugumo, Minegumo, Yamagumo),
- a detachment of 20 men from 21st Special Base Force, who were to serve as an occupation force,
- 850 Japanese officers and enlisted men of the 21st, 24th Special Base Forces and 102nd Construction Unit and
- two transport ships for carrying of phosphate.
This force departed Bantam Bay, Java Island, at 1900 on 29 March 1942. At about 4.30 am on 31 March 1942 elements of Admiral Kondo’s Second (Southern) Fleet, comprising 9 ships approached the island and after an air attack and a period of unanswered shelling of coastal facilities, at 0945 disembarked its contingent of a naval brigade – 800 marines, mining technical staff and administrators. The Japanese under Commander Ando were widely welcomed by white flags, and some locals even gave assistance to the first barges seeking the best landing points. They were also welcomed by the Havildar Mir Ali, who had led the Indian mutineers. The landing was unopposed, as the British-Indian garrison indicated its intention of surrendering by hoisting a white flag at the first sight of the invasion force.
The USN submarine Seawolf was lurking during the landing and after several unsuccessful attacks, over several days, managed to damage one of the cruisers, the Naka, which eventually had to return to Japan for repairs. (At this time the US torpedoes most in use were notoriously unreliable and often failed to detonate.)
Ando had allowed his troops a fairly free hand at first and there was a spate of beatings, vandalism and theft but not the atrocities and mass raping that had been reported Nanking or Singapore. There were no attacks on young girls or Malay women or Chinese married women. For a time, some Chinese young women, including prostitutes, attempted to attach themselves to single Chinese men but sometimes this ruse was unsuccessful.
On the first day the Japanese commander addressed all the Indian troops, inviting them to join the Japanese-backed Indian National Army (INA) and fight for a free India within the Greater East Asian Coprosperity Sphere, under Japan’s leadership. All except the original seven mutineers refused, which led to the treatment of the still-loyal Indian troops dramatically worsening.
After three days, Ando reimposed military discipline and banned gambling and focussed on restoring the mining exports – certainly to Japan – and encouraged the reluctant workforce to return to serve Japan.
Commander Ando set up his headquarters in one of nicer European houses and oversaw some vigorous, at times brutal interrogations. Early in April 1942 a Japanese light cruiser Natori returned to Christmas Island to gather up the troops and the remaining ships and with the exception of the twenty-men garrison detachment. After the replacement of the naval brigade by engineering and administrative personnel, things settled down somewhat.
The Japanese Southern Fleet reinforced by the removal of much of the CI invasion fleet undertook a series of bold raids across the northern Indian Ocean in early April. These forced the temporary withdrawal of the British Royal Navy to ports on the African coast, further isolating Christmas Island, and many other allied outposts, in the Eastern Indian Ocean.
The Japanese were very angry at the sabotage of equipment around the cove, although the Europeans strongly asserted that much had been caused by the Japanese bombardments. Nevertheless, instances of brutality, including a savage beating of the British District Officer Cromwell, took place. The interned CI Europeans were treated as POWs and their food supply was minimal and conditions were very primitive. If it hadn’t been for food and supplies smuggled in by the Indian police, other Asian residents and even a few sympathetic Japanese soldiers, many might have starved.
Many of the European POWs were employed to maintain many of the key infrastructure services for the CI community (water, electricity, roads, etc) or forced into manual labour when required, though exhaustion and semi-starvation were affecting their fitness.
With so many labourers still hiding in the jungle, reluctant to re-join the workforce, and so much damaged equipment, nothing like normal production targets would ever be met and someone with local knowledge, expertise in engineering and management and language skills was needed. Enter, Jimmy Kang, an intelligent, though unscrupulous man who set out to make his mark.
Restarting Ore Shipments
The Japanese technical staff worked to return the mine to production, repairing damage caused by both sabotage and the Japanese bombardments. They also augmented the island’s defences, adding bunkers and anti-aircraft guns and built a small Shinto shrine. They encouraged development of open ground as vegetable gardens to ease the food shortage. With one eye optimistically on the future, one interned staff member, Jack Pettigrew, who had always been keen to develop a golf course, recommended a particular flat area of land near the water supply for clearing, using excavators and equipment from the mine, and cultivation. After the war, this area became better known as the Christmas Island Golf Club.
As well as mining and shipping, the Japanese insisted that Jimmy Kang restored the brothel services on CI and his ‘gang leaders’ soon had begun pressuring suitable new girls to join the ranks of former prostitutes and soon a limited service was in place. The imposition of serving the soldiers of the enemy was strongly resisted and resented by many of the Chinese girls, who kept running off, and it was later augmented by attractive Javanese girls, enticed by offers of teaching positions. Most of these were repatriated to Indonesia after the war.
Life Under Occupation
Although the reduced workforce was employed 5½ days a week only a trickle of phosphate was shipped off the island compared to pre-war figures and on 17 November 1943 an American submarine attacked and sank the Nissei Maru while it was being loaded at the wharf, killing 4 Japanese and 3 Malays. It sank in the deep harbour and remains there to this day. Later, frequent visits by American submarines brought shipping to a virtual standstill and an active black market emerged in locally grown fresh fruit, vegetables and wildlife meat. Mining wound down and now, with so few supply ships, there was a real threat of starvation.
By December 1943 the food situation was critical and 800 residents, including all the POWs, the Indian mutineers and police and many Japanese personnel, were removed on the Nanyo Maru. The islanders were interned at Surabaya and after February 1944 the POWs sent on to Pari Pari Camp on the Celebes (Sulawesi). Conditions endured by the POWS were very arduous and some lost almost a third of the pre-war weight and suffered from numerous ailments as a result of their treatment. Although all were eventually repatriated, including Lt Cmdr Tom Donovan, one of the very few survivors from the USS Langley, many were in poor condition and one died within a year. About 200 of the Asian workforce were forcibly sent to a shipbuilding yard on Borneo where the work was hard and dangerous, there was little medical support and food and living conditions were very primitive. About a third died.
The Allies as occasional visitors – 1943-1945
Only 50 Japanese and about 300 Asians remained on Christmas Island after 1943, intermittently supplied by a small wooden vessel sailing irregularly from Borneo, but the allies made no attempt to retake it. Although most of the major battles were in and around the Pacific Ocean, Australia’s western waters were also of ongoing interest and there was little intelligence on what Japanese personnel were actually doing on, for instance, Christmas Island.
On 10 January 1944 a single B-24 Liberator from USAAF, flying under RAAF operational control, flew an armed reconnaissance flight over Japanese-occupied Christmas Island. The specially modified long-distance B24 was based at a secret airfield complex at Corunna Downs, near Marble Bar, Western Australia and was used in a number of ultra-long-distance flights – this one took 17 hours and then on their return they had to stop for an urgent refuel at Port Hedland. Several 100 lb bombs were dropped to ensure the attention of the Japanese and possibly to lift the morale of the Islanders, but the purpose of the flight was more interesting. The allies were certainly interested in observing and disrupting what the Japanese were doing in terms of defence measures to counter any allied incursions. However, the mining company wanted to evaluate the extent of war damage that might hinder its readiness to resume mining and export of rock phosphate, a valuable commodity necessary for Australia’s agricultural industries.
By 1944 it was clear that Japan would eventually lose the war and the company that had operated the mine before 1942 and an intending purchaser of the now-impoverished mine, BPC, were interested in assessing the condition of the mine’s assets and island infrastructure. Following cabinet-level interventions, it was agreed that an Australian was to be carried as a special passenger. Before his evacuation to Perth in 1942, (Captain) John Rupert Paris (AIF) had been the Chief Engineer and Works Manager for the old CIP Co and was already on the payroll of BPC, widely accepted as the potential purchaser of the island’s assets after the War. Given BPC’s unhappiness with their experience of allied bombing of Nauru, Paris was well-placed to assess war damage and also to prevent any further damage, unless it was operationally necessary. It can be observed in photos that at least some of the plane’s bombload about to impact in jungled-covered areas.
On 22 August 1944, the British submarine, HMS Spiteful, observed the inactivity in the Flying Fish Cove and then shelled oil storage tanks. There was a degree of return fire, but the submarine was not damaged and sailed on to Fremantle where it was based for some time.
In early 1945 a unit from Force 136, part of the UK’s Special Operations Executive (SOE), based in Ceylon (Sri Lanka) was landed on Christmas Island, away from the known Japanese settlement. The unit included at least one Australian and was intended to support a clandestine radio, but this was soon abandoned when they heard rumours of the ongoing threat posed by the former mutineers and withdrew to the greater isolation of Cocos. Finally, in June 1945, a RAAF DH Mosquito made a photo-reconnaissance pass over CI but there were no further incursions.
Peace and Freedom
By mid-1945 the shortage of food stocks became a serious issue and bartering island garden products, sometimes using opium, became common. At the end of hostilities, on 15 August 1945, the remaining Japanese personnel set up a Christmas Island Vigilance Committee to govern the community and released their accumulated food stocks – they had held back supplies to last for 6 months! Although rumours were running through the Asian community, they were not actually informed of the Japanese surrender, perhaps in the hope of avoiding any local unrest or insolence, as had taken hold within the Dutch East Indies.
On 24 August the last Japanese said their farewells and departed from the Island for the regional headquarters in Surabaya. A radio receiver that had been buried deep in the jungle was quickly retrieved, cleaned and made operational and this provided confirmation that the war was over and so the Asian population only had to wait patiently for the allies to return ……. and wait.
After the surrender events in Singapore, many allied POWs were being released. When District Officer Cromwell was released, he cabled Allied HQ in Melbourne that all European POWs from CI were poorly, but still alive (though one died in mid-1946) but that many of the 214 Asian POWs were destitute and 64 in Borneo had died during their imprisonment.
Liberation & Loose Ends
In early October, almost 2 months after the departure of the Japanese, the newly established British Military Administration in Singapore instructed its Major Van Der Gaast to sail with the destroyer HMS Rother (Lieut-Comdr Rogers, RNVR) to Christmas Island to:
- reclaim the Island for Great Britain,
- Ascertain the position on the Island,
- Land relief supplies to whatever population remains and establish, if necessary, rationing,
- Conduct and necessary or desirable evacuations,
- Assess any phosphate stocks ready for export
No radio transmissions had been received from the Island, but the relief group had received an intelligence briefing in Singapore on what they might expect on Christmas Island. They left Singapore on 12 October and anchored off Batavia on 15 October, where they met with several Japanese officers who had recently been on the Island who, in the main, supplied what turned out to be some very useful appraisals – one even offered to fly them out over it, and offer which was declined. The atmosphere in Batavia was very tense, with little commercial activity and roving well-armed gangs of both Dutch and ‘Nationalists’ inflicting violence and kidnappings on each other and both critical of the British occupying troops trying to keep the peace. It was hoped that this was not the situation on the Island as they approached Flying Fish Cove early on 18 October and despatched an armed landing party in the dark.
The initial British landing prompted no response so Rother sent several ‘star shells’ up to illuminate the beach area and turned on its searchlight. In fact, their arrival had been seen by two fishermen who then phoned to the main office in Settlement and a welcoming committee was being assembled. The first local to meet the landing parties as they walked up from the beach called out that “there are no Japs, but I have chickenpox”, then disappeared. It later emerged that this was Jimmy Kang, the collaborator.
News of the landing spread quickly and patriotic banners and flags soon appeared all over the Settlement. Most of the population, led by the Christmas Island Vigilance Committee, gathered at 10 am outside the office of the CI Phosphate Company for the hoisting of the Union Jack, where welcoming speeches were made and gratitude for the Islanders’ loyalty was expressed – to be followed by the school children singing the National Anthem.
After lunch the crew agreed to carry out the destruction of the much-resented Japanese Shinto Shrine, where locals had been forced to prey during the occupation – though interestingly, most avoided being present for this.
The two days on CI involved many activities and amusements with the communities, especially the children, were joyful for the crew, who were welcomed and feted wherever they went. Many administrative and legal matters were attended to and the captain accepted a petition to prosecute Jimmy Kang for his treachery and another for the mutineers to be found and prosecuted, on the Island and further petitions on other issues. He worked with the Chair of the CI Vigilance Committee, Mr Foo Thye Jin, and many of his colleagues to plan for the next phases of liberation and recovery and made Mr Foo’s position a formal appointment, pending the return of colonial authorities.
As Rother left late on 20 October the whole population sang Auld Lang Syne from the shore and exemplified the official report to Singapore that they had found “a very loyal, happy and well-run community”.
It was two months later, 21 December 1945, when the familiar CIP Co supply ship Islander, now stripped of armaments and returned to CIPCo ownership, returned to Flying Fish Cove briefly, for an inspection, then returned on 28 October with Captain Shaw, the newly appointed Military Administrator. This time senior mining staff, engineers and reconstruction teams disembarked and the arduous task of restoring government and company operations began. In the end, the disruption and damage of war, along with post-war social upheavals, overwhelmed the old CI Phosphate Company. It became a delayed casualty of war when in 1949 ownership was purchased by the British Phosphate Commission BPC), a partnership comprising the governments of Australia, New Zealand and Britain.
Two legal loose ends still needed to be tied up. Jimmy Kang Tiang Kwang was born in Malacca in 1905 and had worked as an engineer on CI since 1925. He was also fluent in Malay and English and could be very charming and persuasive. As an experienced and knowledgeable engineer, he had continued to be fully employed as such after liberation, despite his record of intensive collaboration, until sufficient less tainted engineers arrived on Island, and he was dismissed on 7 January 1946. A day later the Vigilance Committee charged him for his roles in support of the Japanese – labour supply, engineering services and the prostitution services. Appearing before Captain Shaw, Kang pleaded guilty to all charges, and he was sentenced to be sent to Singapore for terms of imprisonment and degrading whippings. He pleaded that his treachery and hatred of the British and of the colonial regime on CI had been sparked by the refusal of the company doctor to treat his daughter, who later died.
It seems Shaw had developed some respect, even sympathy, for Kang’s plight and motivations. Shipping delays meant that six weeks had passed before Kang arrived at Outram Road Prison in Singapore and in the meantime, Captain Shaw intervened on his behalf. Consequently, the whippings were cancelled, and his term of imprisonment greatly reduced. An affectionate letter from Captain Shaw to Kang dated 14 June 1946 includes “I hope you have managed to find reasonable employment in Malaya. You have paid the due penalty for your actions in 1942/45 and this should not stand in your way in future …” The next entry on the file reports “This man Kwang died 6/11/1947”.
The fate of the mutineers was more complex. At the end of the war seven of the mutineers were handed over to the British surrender authorities by the Indonesian Nationalists but the main leader, Mir Ali, was among the dozen others who had disappeared, probably into the ranks of the anti-British Indian National Army. The seven prisoners went before a general court martial in Singapore in December 1946 and six were convicted and sentenced to hang, though all pleaded for mercy and lodged petitions for clemency. Months of argument and debate went by, while the Indian subcontinent was in the upheavals leading to partition and independence and significant input from the Commonwealth Office in Britain. By 1948 all hangings had been commuted and with the option of transfer to India or Pakistan most eventually served 9 years in prison. Mir Ali, the ring leader, was never found.
Sovereignty over Christmas Island was ceded to Australia in 1958 and with the permission of the Administrator, in 1983 the ex-servicemen on Christmas Island privately purchased and installed a simple brass plaque on the wall of old naval gun emplacement – finally the murder of the British troops in 1942 was formally commemorated on the island. Each year, Anzac Day services are held at this site and attendees overlook the tranquil Flying Fish Cove, a place that saw so much action as the storm of war buffeted this tiny tea cup.
- AWM, Official History Australia in the 1939-1945 War – Navy
- Donovan Thomas Jnr (2000) An Ordeal to Forget in Naval History (June 2000) US Naval Institute
- Hunt, John (2011), Suffering through strength, John Hunt, Canberra
- Meade Bob (Blog) (2008) What was the Unknown Sailor of Christmas Island wearing?
- Messimer, Dwight (1983) Pawns of War, Annapolis (USA)
- Neale, Margo (1988) We were the Christmas islanders, Neale, Canberra
- Neale, Margo (1993) Christmas island: The Early Years, Neale, Canberra
- Nordic Institute of Asian Studies (2016) End of Empire – 100 Days in 1945 that Changed Asia and the World, NIAS Press, Copenhagen K, Denmark
- Yeoh Fran (Curator), Christmas Island Archives